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The Whoppers of 2004

Bush and Kerry repeat discredited claims in their final flurry of ads. Here's our pre-election summary of the misinformation we found during the Bush-Kerry presidential campaign.

October 31, 2004

Modified: October 31, 2004

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Summary

 

As election day neared, both candidates continued to twist and falsify in their final TV ads -- and in a blizzard of expensive mail as well.

Bush continued to accuse Kerry of proposing government-run health care and more taxes for middle-income persons, and of voting in the past to "slash" spending on intelligence and of opposing mainstream military weapons. Kerry claimed Bush would cut Social Security benefits 45% and that he subsidizes companies that send jobs overseas. And those are just some of the untruths the candidates are feeding to voters.

In this article we again take on those claims, and summarize the major misrepresentations made by both sides since the start of the general election campaign last March when Kerry sewed up the Democratic nomination.

Analysis

 

We haven't addressed every false or misleading statement in the campaign -- there were too many of them and our resources are too limited for that.  But here we present a summary of what we consider our most important findings, with special emphasis on the misinformation being most heavily repeated in the final days before the election. For the full record of our work please refer to the earlier articles on the home page and in our archive.

Bush: "Government-run Health Care"

Bush continued to misrepresent Kerry's health-care proposal in a series of ads and mailings, telling voters that Kerry would take health-care decisions out of the hands of doctors and have "bureaucrats in Washington" making them instead.

Actually, 97% of those who now have health insurance would keep the coverage they have under Kerry's plan, according to a neutral, authoritative study by the Lewin Group. Kerry's very expensive plan would also extend coverage to as many as 27 million persons who currently lack insurance, largely by expanding current forms of Medicaid coverage to children and workers farther up the income scale. Even the conservative, pro-Bush Wall Street Journal editorial page stated that Kerry wasn't seeking to impose the sort of health-care program proposed by the Clintons in 1993, exactly contrary to the picture Bush attempts to paint.

Wall Street Journal Editorial (Oct 29): What is the Kerry Persuasion? For starters, it is not radical. Nothing in Mr. Kerry's record as Senator or as Democratic nominee gives us reason to suspect that as President he would seek dramatically to alter the basic contours of American life. On the economy, that means no HillaryCare, . . .

For more on Bush's distortion, see "Bush Mischaracterizes Kerry's Health Plan " from Oct. 4.

Kerry: "A Plan To Cut Security Benefits"

Kerry Edwards Ad
Secret

Announcer: They were hoping to keep it a secret , but we just learned that George Bush and the Republicans are planning to privatize Social Security after the election. Bush and the Republicans have already put Social Security at risk with a record deficit of over $400 billion. Now Bush and the Republicans have a plan to privatize Social Security that cuts benefits by 30 to 45 percent.
Bush and the Republicans, a plan to cut Social Security benefits
.
Kerry: I'm John Kerry and I approved this message.

A new Kerry ad that began airing late last week repeats this falsehood even more starkly than at first, claiming Bush and his Republican supporters "were hoping to keep it a secret" that they "are planning to privatize Social Security after the election" and that the plan "cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent." It repeats: "Bush and the Republicans, a plan to cut Social Security benefits."

Actually, Bush has repeatedly said he won't cut benefits for anyone currently receiving them, or about to start getting them. His intention to create private Social Security accounts is certainly no "secret" since he talked about that during the campaign four years ago, and in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in early September. Furthermore, Bush hasn't proposed any specific plan as yet. The "cut" the ad refers to is an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office of the effect of holding starting benefit levels at current levels adjusted only for inflation, rather than pushing them up each year in line with wages as has been done since 1977. For persons born in this decade -- most of whom haven't yet been born -- the CBO figured starting benefits at retirement could be as much as 45% less than under the current formula. Furthermore, doing away with wage-indexing could be done with or without private accounts. It was just one feature of one of three "model" plans put forth by a bipartisan commission Bush set up. Bush hasn't endorsed any of the model plans, nor has he called for dropping wage-indexing.

For full details see "Kerry Falsely Claims Bush Plans To Cut Social Security Benefits" from Oct. 18.

(Note: There are other problematic statements in this ad and the others shown here. We criticize only the portion bold-faced in the scripts, but that shouldn't be taken as endorsement of the rest.)

Bush: "Higher Taxes"

In one of his final ads Bush characterizes the choice between himself and Kerry as one between "tax relief" and "higher taxes." 

Bush Cheney '04
"The Choice"

Announcer: When it’s finally quiet, here’s the choice:

President Bush and Congressional allies: - strong leadership to protect America - tax relief - common sense healthcare - strengthen and protect Social Security.
John Kerry and liberal allies: - higher taxes - voting to tax Social Security benefits - government-run healthcare
- a record of slashing intelligence and - reckless defense cuts.
Alone in the booth…why take the risk?
Bush: I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message.

That is certainly true for anyone making more than $200,000 a year, but false for the great majority.

Kerry has stated unambiguously that he would not increase taxes on anyone making less than $200,000 and is promising additional, targeted tax breaks for some who fall into that category. Bush has systematically distorted, exaggerated and misstated Kerry's record on taxes since the start of the campaign. Initially, his spokesmen accused Kerry of casting 350 votes to raise taxes, which was flatly false. Bush and his ads used the same figure phrased in a duplicitous way, saying Kerry voted 350 times for "higher" taxes, which was misleading because most of those votes were to keep taxes the same -- opposing proposed cuts. Later the Bush campaign retreated to a less indefensible claim, saying Kerry cast 98 votes to "raise" taxes, but even that figure is puffed up by including 43 votes on budget bills that only set targets without actually legislating higher taxes, and as many as 16 votes on a single tax bill. In fact, we found Kerry's voting record to be generally consistent with his promise to raise taxes on those earning the most money.

For details, see "Bush accuses Kerry of 350 votes for 'higher taxes.' Higher than what?" from March 24, and "Bush Still Fudging the Numbers on Kerry's Tax Votes" from August 30. (Also see below for Bush's mischaracterizations of Kerry's positions on taxing gasoline and Social Security).

Kerry: Tax Breaks for Outsourcing

DNC Ad
Saginaw

Announcer: Republicans are coming to Saginaw, telling us the economy is looking up. But last month Michigan lost more jobs than anywhere in the nation. We lost more than 240,000 jobs in the last four years. And their plan for our economy? Tax breaks for sending jobs overseas. Ending overtime for six million workers. Opposing a raise in the minimum wage. Weakening pensions our families count on. Republicans say they know what it feels like to lose a job. Maybe it's time they find out. The Democratic National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

The Kerry campaign has consistently implied -- and sometimes stated outright -- that Bush is responsible for subsidizing companies that send jobs overseas. This is at best a serious exaggeration and at its worst an outright falsehood, as in a recent Democratic National Committee TV ad running in Michigan. Of Bush and Republicans in Congress it states: "Their plan for our economy? Tax breaks for sending jobs overseas."

Actually, the US tax code has given such tax breaks for decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. It is most certainly not Bush's doing. Bush does oppose Kerry's proposal to address the tax incentive, on grounds that it would hurt some US exporters (and their workers.) But even Kerry concedes that his plan wouldn't put an end to jobs going overseas, and economists say such "outsourcing" accounts for a tiny fraction of total job loss in any case.

For more, see "Kerry Blames Corporate Tax Code for Shipping Jobs Overseas " from July 28.

Bush: "Slashing Intelligence"

Bush has portrayed a Kerry deficit-cutting bill from a decade ago as a proposal to "slash" spending on intelligence in the face of a rising threat of terrorism. The fact is that what Kerry proposed and voted for in 1994 amounted to less than 4 percent of all intelligence spending at the time. Back then, the focus of intelligence spending was still the former Soviet Union, which was disintegrating, and Republicans were proposing cuts in intelligence spending, too. Even the current director of Central Intelligence, appointed by Bush, co-sponsored a deficit-elimination bill that contained a proposed 20 percent cut in intelligence personnel the year after Kerry proposed his much smaller percentage cut in overall spending.

For details, see "Would Kerry Throw Us To The Wolves?" from Oct. 23 and "Bush Strains Facts Re: Kerry's Plan To Cut Intelligence Funding in '90's " from March 15.

Bush: "Reckless Defense Cuts"

The Bush campaign first rolled out this attack last February, even before Kerry had completely clinched the Democratic nomination. Bush has pursued this distorted portrayal relentlessly right through his final series of TV ads and mailings, accusing Kerry of opposing tanks, planes, helicopters, and even Humvees and body armor. It showed up in Zell Miller's keynote address attacking Kerry at the Republican convention, and in Republican mailings that were showing up last week in a number of key states. In West Virginia, for example, a Republican National Committee mailing claimed Kerry had "opposed weapons systems vital to winning the war on terror," and listed ten including the Apache helicopter, the Bradley fighting vehicle and the M-1 Abrams tank.

There's some truth to this one, but not much. Kerry did oppose the list of weapons cited by Bush as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Senate in 1984, as then-President Reagan was pushing an enormous build-up in military spending.  But the fact is that once elected, Kerry didn't actually vote against many of the weapons on that list (except to oppose the entire Pentagon budget in 3 years). Kerry cast specific votes mostly against expensive nuclear and strategic systems such as the Trident missile, B-2 bomber and "star wars" missile-defense systems. After the collapse of the Soviet Union even Republicans were for cutting spending on weapons: Bush's father and his secretary of defense Dick Cheney proposed a 30 percent reduction in Pentagon spending. Kerry has supported Pentagon budgets in 16 of his 19 years in office, including every annual budget from1997 on.

For more, see "Did Kerry Oppose Tanks & Planes? Not Lately ," from Feb. 28, " More Bush Distortions of Kerry Defense Record " from April 26, and "Zell Miller's Attack on Kerry: A Little Out Of Date ," from Sept. 3.

Kerry: Worst Economic Record Since Hoover

Challengers don't often win when the economy is good, and so Kerry has systematically distorted, exaggerated and misstated facts about the economy under Bush. For more than a year, as far back as his speech Sept. 2, 2003 formally announcing himself as a candidate for the nomination, Kerry has been making bogus comparisons to the Great Depression, overstating the number of payroll jobs lost during Bush's tenure, and (once jobs started growing again last August) falsely claiming that the new jobs pay $9,000 less than those that were lost, a claim unsupported even by the evidence he cites from a pro-labor think tank.

Actually, the economy in October 2004 is about average -- though certainly not as good as it was in the four years before Bush took office.

  • Unemployment: According to the most recent figures available, the US unemployment rate stood at 5.4 percent in September. That's was slightly better that the average rate of 5.63 percent for every month since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping records. But it's not quite as good as the 5.2 percent rate that prevailed at the same point in Clinton's first term, and it is significantly worse than the remarkably low 4.2 percent rate in place when Bush took office in January, 2001.
  • Job Growth: Kerry repeatedly claims that 1.6 million jobs have been lost under Bush, which is false. The BLS currently puts total payroll employment for September at just under 600,000 below where it was when Bush took office, taking into account an annual "benchmarking" adjustment that will be made next February. The economy has gained nearly 2 million jobs since the worst of the slump 13 months ago, but it now appears Bush will probably finish his term in January 2005 with a slight loss. Only in that sense could his tenure be compared to Hoover's.
  • Job Quality: Kerry's bases his claim that today's jobs pay $9,000 less that jobs that were lost on averages calculated by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, but even EPI's numbers don't back up what Kerry says. The EPI computes averages for a few broad industries, not a comparison of specific jobs lost compared to new jobs. No such figures exist. And as we showed in one of our articles, comparing a larger number of job categories -- accounting for 154 different types of work within industries -- produces a finding that contradicts Kerry's claim. Those figures show higher-paying occupations growing faster than lower-paying occupations. But these are also averages that don't compare specific jobs lost with specific new jobs. The fact is there's no agreement among economists as to whether new jobs are worse or better, let alone what the pay difference might be, despite what Kerry keeps saying.

For more, see "Kerry Makes Bogus Comparison to Great Depression" from Dec. 4, 2003 (one of the articles that appeared on this website's first day), "Economy Producing Mostly Bad Jobs? Not So Fast" from July 9, and "Kerry's Dubious Economics " from Aug. 3.

Bush: "Kerry's Gas Tax"

One of the longest-running falsehoods perpetrated by the Bush campaign is their made-up claim of a "Kerry Gas Tax." The home page of the Bush campaign website has featured a "Kerry gas tax calculator" since the start of the campaign back in March (supposedly allowing drivers to figure exactly how much Kerry's tax would cost them based on the year, make and model of their automobile and the number of miles driven). In fact, Kerry isn't proposing any such tax.

The only support the Bush campaign has ever offered for this attack is a quote in two Boston newspapers from ten years ago, when Kerry claimed he should have been given more credit as a deficit hawk because of "my support for a 50-cent increase in the gas tax." Kerry has never denied that quote, but the fact is that he had the opportunity to co-sponsor a 50-cent increase the year before, and didn't. He's never sponsored or voted  for such a large increase and so far as we can tell has never spoken in favor of one since that single quote a decade ago.

For more, see "Bush's Gas Attack: Does Good Policy Make Bad Politics?" from March 4.

Additional Distortions

  • Kerry: Middle Class "Tax Burden" Kerry accuses Bush of imposing a "bigger share of America's tax burden" on the middle class, when in fact Bush's tax cuts reduced the size of the burden at every income level. Upper-income taxpayers got more relief than those in the middle, but the most affluent 20 percent still pay nearly 64 percent of all federal taxes, including income, payroll and excise taxes. For more see "Kerry's Tax Ad: Literally Accurate, But Misleading" from Oct. 13.
  • Bush: "Most Liberal Senator"  Bush and his campaign often called Kerry the most liberal person in the Senate, based on a National Journal rating for a single year, even though the same publication ranks him 11th over his entire Senate career, and other rankings place him just to the left of the Democratic party's center. See "How Liberal Is John Kerry?" from Oct. 19.
  • Kerry: Cheney & Halliburton Kerry falsely implied Cheney has a financial interest in Halliburton and is profiting from the company's contracts in Iraq.  The fact is, Cheney doesn't gain a penny from Halliburton's contracts, and almost certainly won't lose even if Halliburton goes bankrupt. The ad also falsely stated that Cheney got $2 million from Halliburton after becoming Vice President, when in fact all the money was deferred compensation earned in 1999, and most of it was paid just before Cheney was sworn in. (A recent Michigan Democratic Party mailing accuses Cheney and Bush of being "in Halliburton's pocket" because of Cheney's compensation.) See "Kerry Ad Falsely Accuses Cheney on Halliburton" from Sept. 30.
  • Bush: Repeal Wiretaps of Terrorists A Bush ad in May falsely claimed Kerry would repeal the use of wiretaps against terrorists contained in the USA Patriot Act, and Bush repeatedly accuses Kerry of wanting to "weaken" the act.  In fact, Kerry is co-sponsoring S.1709, a bill that would provide more judicial oversight of so-called "roving wiretaps" and "sneak and peek" search warrants. The bill's author is a conservative Republican, Larry Craig of Idaho. In fact, several conservative Republicans who have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse of personal liberty contained in the Patriot Act, which was enacted hastily in the days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. For more see "Bush Ad Falsely Implies Kerry Would Repeal Wiretaps of Terrorists" from May 25.
  • Bush: Terrorism a "Nuisance" Bush ran an ad inviting viewers to think Kerry considers terrorism a "nuisance" and suggesting he's too "weak." That twisted Kerry's words. What he really said was that the US could reduce terrorism to a nuisance though not be rid of it, like prostitution, illegal gambling and organized crime. In fact, Bush himself had said much the same thing, telling a TV interviewer of the war on terrorism, "I don't think you can win it" but can make terrorists "less acceptable" in parts of the world that now harbor them. (A Republican National Committee mailing in New Mexico repeats the distortion, saying, "Kerry says terrorists should be treated like gambling and prostitution.") See "An Avalance of Misinformation" on Oct. 21.
  • Bush: Big Medical Savings  Bush continues to predict substantial reductions in medical costs from his proposal to put a ceiling on so-called "pain and suffering" awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. But nearly all studies show negligible savings in states that have enacted such caps. Bush bases his projections on one very limited study that only looked at hospitalized heart patients. For more see "President Uses Dubious Statistics on Costs of Malpractice Lawsuits" from Jan. 29.
  • Bush: 900,000 Small Businesses The Bush campaign persists in claiming that 900,000 small business owners will see a tax increase under Kerry's proposal to raise individual income-tax rates for those making over $200,000 a year. The number is badly inflated -- the actual number is estimated at 471,000  by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. (This exaggeration was being repeated in a Republican National Committee mailing received in Minnesota just before the election.) For details see "Are Bush and Cheney "Small Businesses?" Their Ad Counts Them As Such" from Sept. 23.

Independent Groups

We have dealt here primarily with what the candidates and their campaigns have said, but those were by no means the only falsehoods and distortions in the 2004 campaign. We note here some of the problems we found with independent groups on both sides (sometimes called "527" groups, although not all of them are actually organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue code).

  • The Media Fund Serial whoppers came from this Democratic group run by former Clinton deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, which has run an estimated $47 million worth of ads so far. Most recently it accused Bush of allowing bin Laden's relatives to leave the US while most US airspace was still closed in the days following the September 11 attacks, a blatant falsehood. For just two examples, see "Media Fund Twists the Truth More Than Michael Moore" on Oct. 27, and "Twisted Facts and Falsehoods in Media Fund Ad " from May 14.
  • Swift Boat Veterans for Truth This group ran $11 million in dubious ads claiming Kerry didn't deserve his Vietnam medals, and characterizing his anti-war testimony as a "betrayal" of veterans. See "Republican-funded Group Attacks Kerry's War Record" on Aug. 6, and "Swift Boat Veterans Anti-Kerry Ad: "He Betrayed Us" With 1971 Anti-War Testimony" on Aug. 23.
  • Moveon.org This anti-Bush group ran more than $20 million worth of ads, many of them containing distorted claims. One of them implied that fully automatic assault weapons firing 300 rounds per minute were becoming legal with Bush's blessing, when in fact machine guns have been illegal to own without special federal clearance since 1934, and still are. See "A False Ad About Assault Weapons " from Sept. 14 for just one example of Moveon's distortions.
  • National Rifle Association The NRA began advertising only in the closing days of the campaign, with one of the most blatantly false ads we've seen. It said Kerry is proposing to ban all semiautomatic and pump-action shotguns, and voted to ban deer-hunting ammunition, none of which is true. See "NRA Ad Falsely Accuses Kerry " from Oct. 28.

Sources

 

Editorial: "The Kerry Persuasion," The Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2004: A14. 

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